Even before he learned to swim, Jonathan Pierce was at home in the water.
Pierce, who is autistic, has hypersensitive hearing. He discovered as a boy that the pool was a calming refuge.
“He loved the water when he was really little,” said his father, Tim. “Before he could swim he would jump in the water and just float. He liked that the water blocked his ears. He would float with his ears under the water. I guess we didn’t know that when he was young … but it blocked out all the sounds that were bothering him.
“He would float, cross his legs and cross his arms, with his ears underwater. We’d have to pull him out.”
Now 22, Pierce still loves the pool, but he does more than float. He was introduced to swimming by his parents — who both swim at the masters level and coach — at age 7 and participated in youth and high school programs. He enjoys training and racing.
Now, because of pure happenstance, Pierce has entered the realm of Paralympic swimming and could be destined for big things at the next Games in Tokyo in 2020.
It came about this summer when Tim and his wife, Irene, were watching the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming. When the telecast switched to the track and field trials, they continued to watch. It was then that they saw a short report from the Paralympic track and field trials, being held concurrently, in which Mikey Brannigan — a runner also diagnosed with autism — had won the 1,500-meter to earn a place on the U.S. Paralympic team for Rio de Janeiro, where he would win the gold medal in that event.
“My wife and I looked at each other and wondered, what does (autism) have to do with the Paralympics?” Tim said. “We were just flabbergasted.”
So, Tim immediately started to research Paralympic classifications online and discovered there were categories for athletes with intellectual disabilities. That was news to them.
“I think the general perception is that the Paralympics fit those that have a physical disability, and that’s it,” he said.
That sparked a flurry of correspondence over several weeks between the Pierces and U.S. Paralympics to find out if Jonathan qualified to compete. When it was determined he was eligible, the next step was to get him signed up for the California Classic, a Paralympic meet in Yucaipa, California, near where the Pierces live in Los Angeles. It was at that meet, held Oct. 1-2, that Jonathan made the biggest first-event splash imaginable.
In his first race, the 50-meter freestyle, he set an American record of 28.41 seconds in his S14 class. He then set U.S. records in the 100 free (1:02.61), 200 free (2:19.42), 400 free (4:51.16), 200 individual medley (2:39.43) and 400 IM (5:37.81). Later, it was determined he set a seventh U.S. mark for the 100 butterfly with the first leg of his 400 IM. He also had victories in the 100-meter backstroke and 50- and 100-meter breaststroke.
Tim laughs when he talks about his son’s performance, because many of the distances he swam weren’t tailored to his strengths.
“For him to break the 50 record is kind of silly, because that’s not his race,” he said. “That’s the thing with Jonny, he’s known as a distance swimmer. He’s never been a sprinter.”
Jonathan’s next meet, at the Can-Am Open next month in Miami, will offer his specialty, the 1,500-meter.
“The 400 and up he’s better at,” said Tim. “He’s a machine when he gets to the mile.”
Pierce believes his son could set a record at that distance, because his best is 19:07, more than a minute faster than the current U.S. best.
He says Jonathan doesn’t pay much attention to the records. He’s been told about them and understands, but is more concerned with trying to beat his seeded time in each event.
Since showing what the can do in Yucaipa, Jonathan has been selected for U.S. Paralympics 2016 Emerging Team for swimming.
Jonathan swam for his South Torrance High School team, then swam for his club. He now swims masters. Tim says his training will take a big step forward over the next year. He’s been swimming 90 minutes to two hours about six days a week. That time may increase. He’ll also start working in the gym with his dad.
“We’re going to put him in a program to build him up, get him stronger and see what his potential is,” Tim says. “He’s 22. He’s at a great age. … He’s been doing this without really a lot of work.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.